By Alec Meer on March 25th, 2014 at 12:00 pm.
BioShock Infinite’s DLC, BioShock Infinite and BioShock 1 concludes with this second, longer, stealthier half of last November’s return to Rapture. It’s out now.
You’ll hear no politics from me, though by God it’s tempting to correlate Burial At Sea Part 2’s status as a swansong for two BioShock universes with the recent, shock closure of Irrational. Whatever else there is to both tales, at least this concluding DLC for BioShock Infinite reverses the sense of decline we’ve seen since the original BioShock. Despite a multitude of sins it does leapfrog both Infinite and its own, irritatingly slight if visually flabbergasting Part 1. It also includes the single most unpleasant – and frankly needless with it – moment I’ve ever experienced in a videogame.
So here we are, back in Rapture, now controlling Infinite’s AI companion/plot device Elizabeth in a relatively lengthy DLC campaign with dual goals: 1) introduce true stealth to BioShock and 2) close off any lingering plot holes (and indeed plot contrivances) from both BioShock and BioShock Infinite.
I’m going to start with the latter, primarily to get the moaning out of my system. Burial At Sea is an overt claim of ownership over both BioShock fictions – Rapture’s city beneath the sea and Columbia’s city above the clouds. Clearly I won’t go into detail as once the spoiler avalanche starts I don’t know that I could stop it, but this goes further than before in terms of inextricably linking the two worlds. It finds a clutch of unanswered questions or glossed-over character fates, and uses those as an excuse to insert situations wherein people from each universe have been communicating or otherwise affecting the situation on the other side.
While there’s a sense that someone’s been over the original BioShock with the finest of tooth-combs, both to identify possible gaps and to satisfy lingering fan questions, too often it feels contrived, convenient, unconvincing. The expected cameos are there and there is some excitement to them, but it goes much further than nods – I felt that Rapture winds up tainted and diminished by its new status as dependent on Columbia’s cast. Even if you do go with the new scenario presented, new, even more inconvenient questions are left in its wake: for instance, why didn’t any of Rapture’s powers that be flee to Columbia once the writing was so evidently on the wall for Ryan’s undersea objectivist stronghold?
Some of the shared history manages an affecting pay-off – the previously-implied commonality between Infinite’s Songbird and Rapture’s Big Daddies, for instance – but for the most part there’s frankly a fan fiction air to proceedings. Nothing’s wrong with fan fiction per se, but this finale resolutely fails to convince that there was some grand masterplan all along – the tying up of all, still lingering questions or no, is a retcon through and through.
While it can be powerfully maudlin when the approach is echoes through time, constants and variables rather than outright rewriting, some new reveals are outright ugly in their attempt to retroactively justify earlier narrative decisions. For instance – and a minor spoiler which doesn’t relate to the overall outcome here – we discover that the much-criticised ultimate depiction of Vox Populi leader Daisy Fitzroy as a murderous monster no better than the racist, cruel powers she sought to overthrow was in fact a feint, necessary in order to force a certain event, but really she hated what she was doing and knew it would lead to her own demise.
Honestly, what rot. What a preposterous and blatant attempt to shoot down one of the more persistent criticisms of Infinite after the event. It also speaks to Infinite and Burial At Sea’s use of the dimension-hopping Lutece twins as narrative get out of jail free cards: much as their dialogue continues to entertain, I sincerely hope this is the last we ever see of them.
I digress, really. Like I say, my suspicion is that this is an attempt at total ownership, both to snip off most remaining plot threads from two games and to ensure that, whatever else is done with BioShock in a post-Irrational (as was) future, what we’ve seen so far is protected within a cosmic/quantum bubble of overarching lore.
Onto how the game plays, though I’ll quickly note that a large section towards the end is essentially one long walking tour with everything other than movement switched off (similar to the closing section of the original Infinite), and as such it’s impossible to divorce mechanics from plot.
While some of the familiar BioShock arsenal returns and as such the usual bullet-aided removal of life is a viable option, Burial At Sea really wants to be a stealth game. New sneaking powers, non-lethal takedowns and enemy alert indicators do feel a little shoe-horned in and certainly aren’t as convincing as they would be in a true stealth game, but they are a natural fit – both for play style and atmosphere.
In the Rapture sections especially, hiding and creeping suits the more horror-skewed tone, the encroaching darkness and the sense that Splicers are twisted things you want to avoid rather than ever see the whites of what were once their eyes. Jealously hoarding sleep darts or trying to play the thing without even being seen becomes a sub-game in itself, and there’s a more organic impetus to explore the typically lavish environments slowly and carefully rather than rush to the next skirmish.
While enemies’ ability to detect me seemed all over the place and this created intermittent frustration, I really did feel that I was playing a BioShock game in the way I’d always wanted to play it: on edge, carefully, thoughtfully, planning in advance how to deal with a room full of foes rather than just having to open fire and then roll with the consequences.
There’s also a clear element of loving tribute to stealth games of the past here. Thief references are heavy, from a Plasmid which evokes Garrett’s eye to the (sadly underused) muffling of footsteps when on carpet, to Splicer barks which are just an inch away from ‘someone taffing about?’ There’s also an enemy-heavy room containing grapple points at every corner and a duct system under the floor which can only be a homage to the Batman Arkham games. In its lengthy middle section, non-coincidentally also its strongest, Burial At Sea Part 2 feels like someone, somewhere is really enjoying putting this stuff into BioShock’s magic and technology mash-up world at last.
Unfortunately this only opens up the long-lingering question of why more fleshed-out stealth systems weren’t in BioShock or Infinite all along: they fit so naturally that the series having hitherto been pure combat now seems even more illogical. As does the (personally extremely satisfying) option for non-lethality, via knock-out blows from the shadows or sleep darts – as well as finally offering a way to play that isn’t a colourful variant on all guns blazing, it would have spared Infinite especially from criticisms that mass murder was the resolution to every carefully-depicted socio-political problem. But that there was a way to retro-fit the stealth systems to the earlier games, eh?
Like Burial At Sea Part 1 before it, Part 2 is also beautiful, almost incomparably lavish in both appearance and sound, and astoundingly rich with moments of deft, playful and sinister world-building, but it’s wonderful to finally have a slice of Infinite in which the artist’s control is not quite so total. Creeping allows more appreciation of what’s been built, and part 2 lasts so much longer and is so much more elaborate that it doesn’t bow out with part 1’s deflating sense that we’d just been on a glorified museum tour. To my mind it’s better realised than Infinite itself too – which may have much to do with the sense that for all its absurdity and heightened sci-fi, Rapture remains a more believable, achievable and fascinating place than the more Disneyland-like Columbia, as well as that its shadows and quiet can now be travelled through in kind.
And so to Elizabeth, now agent rather than goal. She too winds up feeling so natural a fit for a BioShock protagonist – a smart innocent being slowly corrupted by the moral rot around her – that the historical decision to go with weak-willed men steeped in blood seems all the more questionable. She’s wracked with guilt and stained in some blood too after the events of Infinite and Burial At Sea part 1, but she is a light in the darkness, and she seeks resolutions that don’t involve pointing a gun at whoever’s on the other end of a two-way radio or the other side of an steel door. The removal of her reality-shifting Tear abilities is overly-convenient and explained via hand-waving, but frankly expecting DLC that gave players the power of a god was always going to be too big an ask.
I’m also grateful that her former status as walking plot device with the power to affect any change the writer so desires is kept at bay until the closing moments – not so much because it affords new ways to appreciate her character (most of Burial At Sea Part 2 is focused on her guilt and loneliness rather than her quantum mysticism), but because the meat of the game retains more of an internal logic, as per the original BioShock, when reality isn’t in danger of being altered at a moment’s notice.
Come the final act, though, control is taken away, the still-novel stealth mechanics are sadly abandoned entirely, part-reveals come thick and fast and the dependence on restaging familiar events from new perspectives gets far too Back To The Future II, but again in a way that undermines rather than appreciates what came before.
There is, too, an uncalled for, drawn-out and horrifying torture scene, seen from the victim’s perspective. One the one hand it’s impressive in that the gruesomeness is achieved as much via sounds and description as it is mere image, but on the other it felt completely wanton. I suppose I won’t spoil it, but I did have to pause it half way through and go for a turn around the block before I could continue. Even thinking about it now makes my arms go limp – no doubt that’s to some degree my own near-phobic response to…. surgical procedures, but it’s also because this scene goes on so damn long and shows the torturer reveling in the detail of his actions.
As well as this moment seeming to me to crave shock-horror outrage, it’s both jarringly unlike anything else in any BioShock and – spoiler of a sort, although you’ve probably guessed this is already – there’s an uncomfortable undertone to the fact that we’re given so much detail for so long of a terrible thing happening to a female character when equally, if not more, gruesome situations that the BioShock series’ male characters suffer are, while grisly, rather more cursory and spared such horrific lingering. Like the torturer, the game seems to revel in what it’s doing to a woman, as opposed to a ‘strong’ man. Honestly, I don’t think there’s anything more odious going on than shock factor, but I don’t think it was a smart choice to have the only time the series does something like this also be the only time it stars a woman. Especially given that said woman has already been repeatedly defined by her victim status.
The combo of that scene and a collapse into narrative self-reverence sadly ends the otherwise extremely impressive Burial At Sea Episode 2, and BioShock, and BioShock Infinite, on something of a sour note – an indulgent, convenient, gratuitous and overly mystical conclusion to tales that had so often soared with strangeness, ambition and philosophy.
Fitting in a way, perhaps. I mean, BioShock’s sins have always been its sins and thus a component part of it in the same way its triumphs have always been its triumphs. Time is a flat circle, to cite the quote of the hour (and my word, don’t True Detective and BioShock’s dark tales have a great deal in common, in terms of expectation vs outcome?), and in so many ways both clearly deliberate and perhaps inadvertent, Irrational’s BioShock series ends as it began. Sky-high ambition. Incredible visual design and attention to detail. Promise it couldn’t possibly live up to. Shortcuts. Pride. A fall.
I could probably write forever about what I think the BioShock games did wrong, but I wouldn’t for one single second want a world in which they didn’t exist. BioShock’s many sins are as fascinating and informative as its many triumphs. And in the end, inna final analysis, BioShock ends with a tantalising, bittersweet glimpse of what might have been – an evolution into stealth, into non-typical protagonists, into… well, rather out of the flat circle and the great chain.